A Way to Change
Brunswick County Detention Center personnel and volunteers help inmates improve their lives.
Just before Christmas, President Trump signed into law a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill named the First Step Act. Among other benefits, the new law boosts prisoners’ access to life-improvement programs designed to help them stay out of jail in the future. Interestingly, the Brunswick County Detention Center has been offering these kinds of programs for several years, and there are plans for even more of them in the near future.
With almost a dozen such programs scheduled to aid inmates here, it might seem as if the detention center served as a prototype for the national law. Brunswick County Sheriff John W. Ingram says that wasn’t the case; however there are national standards for detention excellence, and one of his goals is to have the local center nationally accredited for best practices. Similarly, the sheriff’s office is proud to have recently received an important accreditation of its own.
The sheriff says the mission of the center is to provide safe, secure and humane detention of individuals, while preparing them for a successful return to the community. He says the staff is passionate about that aim, while also keeping the place safe for the paid and volunteer personnel.
“It’s mostly about mutual trust and respect,” Ingram says, noting that his officers regard those in their custody “as people, not inmates or criminals.” The officers are helpfully hands-on around the facility, listening to concerns. But the reality is they also need to home-in on behaviors, conversations and tips that foretell disruptions. “A detention center is similar to a prison and can become a powder keg in a moment’s notice,” he says. “We need to do things to prevent volatile situations, and we try to foster an environment where they can report without retaliation.”
Lieutenant Michael Fowler explains in more detail that if officers aren’t passionate about people, the job probably isn’t for them. He says many of the inmates have never had an example of firm but fair and stable treatment in their lives. The officers need to consistently maintain control, but also provide support for people who experience life’s problems like everybody else in society. He says officers console and lend a sympathetic ear when friends and family die or when there are divorces and other life problems. But they also must uphold the statutes. “We let them know it doesn’t have to be this way. They can change, and be successful,” Fowler says.
The staff wants to make clear that a detention center is not a prison. Most of the inmates are there until they can post bond or until their court date. But there are several repeat offenders, especially for child support neglect, and some stay for longer periods, including a number of federal prisoners who are housed in contract with the U.S. government.
The bottom line is there is enough time to introduce many of the detainees to life-changing programs, which not only educate them, but also give them the confidence to carry on positively when they leave the center.
The current programs include Alcoholics Anonymous; Bible study for females; church services; employment, housing and spiritual mentoring for the females; the Stand Against Trafficking (STAT) group to help females who have been subject to human trafficking; Meditation of the Day; and Workout of the Day. Then, there’s the very popular General Education Development (GED) program, which has helped 15 students earn their high school diplomas and given eight more the opportunity to pass tests and continue the program after their release. Coming soon are the Freed for Success program, designed to teach inmates to set goals, principles and values, time management, anger management and communications skills. Sheriff Ingram said the center is also partnering with the Literacy Council for continuing education on topics such as banking, resumes, taxes, job interviews and more. Detainees will learn the 12-steps to recovery in the upcoming Narcotics Anonymous program. And the center, in conjunction with Brunswick Community College, will train and recruit talent to meet the workforce needs of local employers. The focus will be on the construction workforce, due to the lack of construction workers in our communities.
Sheriff Ingram says he also wants to leverage the strong economy and begin to partner with local businesses that are willing to give the inmates a second chance. “We want to create an avenue for them to get jobs and hopefully become productive citizens, with a goal to reduce the numbers of people returning here, as much as possible.”
Sheriff Ingram says a roadblock is that several years ago state legislators ended funding for mental health programs and “dumped” these folks into confinement facilities. He called it a “perfect storm,” which brought many people addicted to prescription drugs into a detention system totally untrained and unable to treat them.
He says recent legislatures have taken steps to resolve the problem, but that everyone is playing catch-up. In the meantime, the sheriff’s office has established the Anchor Initiative program for the care, recovery and treatment of addicts. It is funded by the nonprofit Brunswick Sheriff’s Charitable Foundation, along with community donations and two of the ABC Boards in the county. Addicts can self-refer to the sheriff without being charged a crime and receive immediate assessment, transportation, detox, initial treatment fees and subsidies for ongoing treatment. Sheriff Ingram says the program is saving lives, reducing opiate use and property crimes, and strengthening the bond between police and the community. Those who are arrested may also receive this assistance.
There is also an internal regulation designed to help prisoners, even before they receive a dormitory room assignment. The center’s classification officer assigns them to dorms consistent with their behavior and the level of their crimes. In other words, a young first-time offender for a minor crime is never paired with a seasoned multi-time offender of more serious crimes. “We take that very seriously,” he says. “We’re regulated by the State Department of Health and Human Resources. We have to do everything we can not to expose prisoners to things they should not be exposed to unnecessarily.”
Chief Jailer Jane Evans says there are 440 beds in the facility, and the average number of prisoners daily is more than 300. She and the sheriff concur that with only 15 paid staff, plus volunteers, it’s very difficult to manage the present arrangement. She says the center is able to provide its programs due to a strong commitment by volunteers in the community. However, she admits it’s a struggle to recruit more volunteers and tutors, even as it is critical to do so. “I’d love to see these programs expand,” she says, noting that the majority of prisoners start coming to jail in their mid-teenage years, and it’s important for the center to focus on programs that are “truly going to help them when they get out.” She says mostly all the programs are run by the volunteers who donate their time and money to make them happen. There is very little taxpayer money expended on them. The sheriff concurs that funding for the programs mostly comes from donations and state grants. He also lauds the volunteers who work in the detention facility lobby and with these special programs. He says they put in tens of thousands of hours annually and save the county around one million dollars a year.
Chief Jailer Evans encourages volunteers to sign up via the application on the center website at brunswicksheriff.com/community-programs/volunteer-program.com. She assures volunteers that they will report to an experienced volunteer leader and are safe while on site. “We monitor them, and they have a lot of interaction with the officers,” she says. “While we try not to interfere with their programs, we do indirectly supervise. We have never had an incident where a volunteer has felt unsafe that I am aware of. There have been no complaints.”
While the need for volunteers is evident, Sheriff Ingram says he has asked the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners to fund 16 more detention officers to stay ahead of potential problems. He says it isn’t an arbitrary number, and this is “not a want or a desire,” but “something truly needed now.” His staff is looking into a new surveillance system because of the large number of detainees and the potential for them hurting each other, themselves or others. The larger staff will enable more expeditious attention on the floors as well as personnel to run the camera systems. He says the board and county manager are a strong group that is mindful of tax dollars and balancing community needs with public safety. He voices confidence that public and the board will support the request.
Asked if there have been any measurements on the success of the life improvement programs, Evans says they have not undertaken a count in their computerized jail management system to determine how many people who use the programs return to the jail. She reminds that most of the programs are faith-based and difficult to measure. She and the other staff members say they do see the same faces over and over, though, even as they keep trying to influence them in positive ways.
All that into the mix, Evans notes she always coaches her detention officers, “You’re going to see these people again – outside. Treat them well.” And the staff members agree in total with her that the programs and the way they treat people, has changed many lives. “There was one guy who was here all the time,” she says. “Most of it was incidental stuff, and we reached out to him over and over and over. We took up donations, got him a job and clothes. After backsliding a bit more, he is now doing good. We took him in and treated him well, and he got it. In the past six years or so, we have not seen him. But he sends messages to us now and then.
“There’s nowhere I go that I don’t run into these folks — even in Florida — and they tell us we’ve made a difference in their lives. Any of the detention officers you talk to will tell you the same thing.”
Sheriff Ingram iterates that the detention center isn’t a vacation and inmates who are jailed for nonviolent crimes do real work while they are there, including cleaning the government center grounds, picking up trash as part of the center’s roadside cleanup crews, providing animal services and painting. Work in itself forges discipline and pride, and the additional programs go a long way toward helping the men and women transform their lives and become productive and upstanding local citizens.